The older I get the more I enjoy the virtues of papaya. It is a ridiculously easy fruit to grow and care for and I have never seen a Bahamian dump site without a stand or two. We call the papaya plant a tree but technically it is a herb; it produces fast and stays around for years. Sometimes papaya trees grow too tall for easy picking. No problem. Cut the tree down at about the five-foot mark. It will grow back with several branches, all of them laden with fruit.
Papaya is a great fruit for winter residents to grow. Arrive on Abaco, spend a month settling in, then plant a few papaya seeds. Next year fruit will be waiting for you and be available all through your stay.
Although easy, there are a few pointers you need to know about raising papaya trees. The seeds can come from fruits that are given to you and you find delicious, or from the local stores that sell high quality fruits cut in half lengthwise so you can see the colour of the flesh. You will only need a few seeds (hold the rest until later in this article) and it is important that those you choose to plant be squeezed until the surrounding skin and juice (the aril) is burst. If you do not get rid of the aril the seeds will ‘plastic wrap’ themselves and resist germination, sometimes for years.
The papaya seeds should then be dried in a breezy spot out of the sun. Although the sun will dry the seeds quickly it may also sterilise them. This goes for all seeds. Plant your seeds in fertile spots that receive full sun all day long and water until established. Fertilize the trees sparingly once a month and water them during long dry spells. Within a year you will have bearing trees (hurricanes permitting) that will give you long and satisfying service.
The old Bahamian papaya had a large fruit but was not very sweet. It also came in male and female trees (boar and sow) and had to be cross-pollinated. Most modern papayas have perfect flowers containing male and female parts and every tree produces fruit. If you do have a variety of papaya that gives you some male trees with long flower sprays instead of individual flowers, allow the trees to get to a good height (4 to 5 inches in diameter) and then cut all but one in half. Miracle of miracles, the cut trees are likely to continue their life cycle as females. The one you do not cut will look after the pollinating duties.
The curse of papayas is the papaya fruit fly that resembles a small wasp with a long tail. That long tail is an ovipositor and is used to inject fruit fly eggs into papaya fruits while the skin is tender. If you experience this problem you can wrap the fruits in small paper bags before the flower drops, crimping them in place. By the time the fruit grows big enough to burst the bag the fruit skin will be thick enough to resist penetration by ovipositors. Pretty it ain’t, but it works.
We old people enjoy papayas because all parts of the plants contain papain, a natural meat tenderizer. A slice or two of ripe papaya eaten after a supper containing meat will aid your digestion very efficiently and allow you to sleep with a quiet stomach, even if you are not a pensioner.
Back to that handful seeds that were extra to your requirements. Spread them on a china plate and leave them to dry (full sun is OK here), stirring them once or twice every day until they are crisp. Put them in a pepper grinder and use as black pepper. Put a few grinds in your favourite vinaigrette to add mystery and pizazz. And, of course, help with your digestion.